The Self-Watering Garden (7 Simple, Worry-Free Ways To Water On Vacation)


Maybe you’re going on vacation for a week or two, or perhaps you’re just looking for an efficient way to keep your garden watered so you can turn your attention to other tasks. Regardless, there are a number of tools and do-it-yourself methods that will put your watering systems on autopilot whether or not you’re at home. 

Drip irrigation, soaker hoses, rain barrels, sprinklers, plastic bottles, water baths, and water wicking are seven passive irrigation systems that will contribute to a healthier garden. These tools have the added benefit of conserving water and energy – ultimately saving you time and money. 

Keep reading to learn more about these self-watering systems and determine which technique is best for you, so that you can stop stressing about watering your garden this summer! 

Self-watering Systems For Field Crops

Most established in-ground crops can survive a week or two without water, especially if your area has moderate rainfall or dewy mornings. Check the weather before you leave, and if some precipitation is called for, your garden will likely be fine. 

If you’re worried, ask a trusted neighbor or friend to keep an eye on things while you’re gone. If you’re going to be gone for an extended amount of time, you might already be hiring a house sitter or pet sitter, so why not give that person watering responsibilities too? Just take the time to give them clear instructions – not everyone has been trained in the art of watering plants. 

1. Drip Irrigation

To date, the most efficient irrigation system is drip irrigation. You can read more about all the different parts of an irrigation system and how they work together here. Essentially, drip irrigation systems consist of a mainline that distributes the water to the base of the plants via perforated tape. 

Drip Irrigation Guide Home Page Image
Drip irrigation lets you water plants on a set schedule, even when you are away.

Drip irrigation is the preferred choice for commercial farms and home gardeners with extensive gardens, but there are some drip irrigation kits specifically for container gardens.

Dripdepot has an affordable container drip irrigation kit and detailed videos explaining exactly how to set it up.

DripWorks drip irrigation kits are more expensive, but you do have the option to bundle a timer with your purchase. 

Drip Works Y Hose Splitter
You can buy hose splitters, timers, and other gadgets to customize your drip irrigation setup.

To make drip irrigation a truly passive watering system, you’ll want to invest in a timer. Whether or not you’re physically present, having a timer takes away the work of remembering your watering schedule–which is particularly useful when you can’t be on site. 

To install a timer to an existing drip tape system, simply attach the timer to your water spigot, then thread the pressure regulator, then thread the mainline. Set your timer, turn the water on, and you can trust that your garden will only get watered when you need it to.

drip irrigation 4
Test out your drip irrigation system before you leave on a long vacation.

Before you leave, run your irrigation system once and check to make sure all parts are working properly. Check the timers, pressure regulators, and hoses for leaks. Walk the whole system and check for pooling water, repairing any tears or ill-fitting pieces that you find. 

2. Soaker Hose

An alternative to drip tape, soaker hoses are made of a porous material that seeps water. Soaker hoses tend to be cheaper than complete irrigation systems, but aren’t as efficient and don’t work as well on sloped ground. But unlike drip irrigation, soaker hoses are designed to be moved through the garden to water different areas as needed.

drip hose
A soaker hose is porous and useful for controlling irrigation in smaller gardens.

Soaker hoses are only effective in sections of 100 feet or shorter – so run a regular garden hose between the water source and your garden beds, and then attach the soaker hose.

Pressure regulators usually aren’t necessary with soaker hoses – just keep an eye on the hose to ensure that the soaker hose isn’t spraying water but seeping water at the base of your plants. 

In the garden, lay soaker hoses at least a foot apart but no more than two feet apart for maximum coverage and efficient watering. Dramm is one of many soaker hose manufacturers, and if your garden isn’t quite linear, you might consider this soaker hose kit from Miracle-Gro. 

3. Rain Barrel

Soaker hoses and drip tape irrigation systems can be fed by a rain barrel if you have one. This is a great option if you are planning to be out of town for any length of time since you won’t have to worry about the timer malfunctioning and running water indefinitely.

water barrel
Use a barrel to catch water for use in irrigation when the weather is dry (or when you are away).

Irrigating with rain barrels works best when the barrel is slightly uphill from the garden–gravity does the work of pulling water from the barrel into the garden, and you don’t have to worry as much about your lines getting clogged.

If your rain barrel isn’t full by the time you need to leave, no worries – you can fill the barrel with city water, too. Just run a hose to the barrel and fill ‘er up.

4. Sprinkler

Sprinklers are another way to water your garden, and while they’re not quite as efficient as drip irrigation and soaker hoses, most sprinklers are cheap. You can read more about the different types of sprinklers here

oscillating sprinkler
A sprinkler is another option to water plants when you are away – although you might need a timer.

The great advantage to sprinklers is that they are mobile, so you can move the sprinkler around to make sure that every inch of your garden gets watered. Unfortunately, sprinklers get the whole plant wet – foliage and all – which may contribute to discoloration and foliar disease (such as blight on tomato plants).

Sprinklers use a lot more water than any other irrigation system, so be sure to put them on a timer to keep from running your water bill through the roof. 

water sprinkler
Test your sprinkler system before leaving for vacation!

If you are planning to leave a sprinkler system unattended, make sure that you carefully observe at least one cycle before you leave. Take note of how far the sprinkler reaches and how long it takes to saturate the soil, adjusting if necessary. You might find you need a second sprinkler to thoroughly water the garden.

Self-watering Systems For Container Gardens

Container gardens need a little more attention than plants grown directly in the earth – pots and raised beds do dry out more quickly than their in-ground counterparts. But just because pots need water brought to them doesn’t mean that you have to be the one doing all the work.

pottings soil mix plant in container
There are also a few ways to make your container garden self-watering.

Use these semi-passive watering systems to minimize your watering chores.

1. Plastic Bottles

The cheapest and easiest way to water pots is with clean plastic bottles. Water bottles, soda bottles, and Gatorade bottles all work great. 

plastic bottles
You can use empty plastic bottles (slightly modified with a few holes) to automate your container watering a bit.

First, collect as many bottles as you have pots, and rinse the bottles clean.

Next, use a clothespin or thumbtack to poke several holes in the top of the bottle. Start with three or four, and check for drainage speed by filling the bottle with water and flipping it over.

The more holes you make, the faster the water will flow and the quicker the bottles will drain, so decide how long you want your self-waterers to last.

Then, you’ll want to fill the bottles with water, replace the cap, and quickly flip the bottle over to avoid losing too much water. Sink the top of the bottle a couple of inches deep in the soil. 

You’ll want to water the pots thoroughly before you leave so that the water in the bottles will be reserved for when your plants begin to dry out. 

Water your container plants before you go on vacation, and leave the water bottles as reserves.

Plastic bottle self-waterers work in at least two ways: gravity pulls water down, forcing it through the small holes. At the same time, molecules in the soil will attach themselves to water particles, pulling water out of the bottle. The deeper you bury your bottle in the soil the faster the water will be pulled out into the surrounding soil. 

For a five or ten-gallon pot, you can use a two-liter bottle, milk jug, or wine bottle. If you use a larger container, consider supporting the container with a stake so that the container doesn’t flop over, spill the water, and damage your plants. Use a nail to make a hole in a wine cork or aluminum lid rather than trying to puncture the glass.

Alternatively, you can buy terracotta spike inserts that standard water bottles screw into. The water leeches out through the spike, for evenly consistent watering. 

A DIY drip system is a great way to upcycle plastic bottles and save them from the landfill! It’s also inexpensive and easy to make, with immediate results. This self-watering system will vary on how long it keeps your garden hydrated, but it’s an easy system to tweak to meet your specific needs. 

If you think that upcycled bottles look a little, well, trashy, you do have another option. Watering globes are usually available from your local garden supply store or websites like Amazon. These spiked orbs work the same way as bottles and can be made from plastic, hand-blown glass, or terracotta.

2. Water Bath

If your plant pots are small enough, you can use the bottom water method while you’re on vacation. This method is best for houseplants and seedling trays, but it’s not ideal for long periods of time unless you can also guarantee your plants will have adequate light. 

To bottom water plants, fill a sink, the bathtub, a plastic tote, or even a kiddie pool with a couple of inches of water. Place the plant pots in the pool, and step away.

plastic container
Fill a small bin with water and put potted plants in (the containers need holes at the bottom for this to work!)

The plant roots will draw up water through the bottom of the pot, keeping your plants hydrated for about a week.

Road trips aside, bottom watering is a great way to water your plants on a regular basis. This irrigation method can actually help keep you from over watering your plants. Try not to leave your plants in a water bath for more than half an hour – letting a plant sit too long in soggy soil, week after week, will likely lead to root rot.

Bottom watering is an easy and inexpensive way to water your plants when you’re away. While the method does have its limitations, it can keep your plants hydrated for up to a week.

The only downside of leaving your plants in a water bath long-term is lighting – if your bathroom doesn’t have good natural lighting, consider adding artificial lighting so that your plants don’t suffer while you’re away.

3. Water Wicking

Water wicking is my favorite self-watering system for container gardens. It’s the longest-lasting passive watering system, providing even and consistent moisture to potted plants. It’s a great system to use even when you’re at home.

I use Blumat Classic self-watering stakes when I need to leave my potted plants for an extended period of time, and I love how clean the terracotta stakes and the brown tubing look. 

Of course, you can make your own simple wicking system with a cotton rope. You’ll also need a bucket or pot to hold the water and a metal washer, 

First, measure out the rope by stretching a piece from the bottom of your plant pot to a table or other elevated surface where you will place the water reservoir. Add a few extra inches and cut the rope. Tie a knot in one end, slide the washer onto the rope, and tie another knot. 

Next, make a hole in the plant pot, and run the unknotted end of the rope into the hole. Try to send the rope down several inches, but avoid disturbing the plant roots too much, if you can help it. Cover the hole with soil so the rope doesn’t slip out.

Then, fill a bucket or another large container with water and place it on an elevated surface. Put the washer end of the rope in the container, and fill with water. 

Thanks to gravity and capillary action, the rope will wick water from the reservoir into your plant pot. It’s a slow process, sometimes taking multiple days to completely hydrate the plant.

If you plan to be away, water your plants before you leave but leave the water-wicking setup in place. As the soil dries, the rope will replenish water as needed. 

You can control how quickly your plants are getting watered by adjusting the height of the water reservoir. The higher the reservoir, the faster water will move.

You can also cut multiple lengths of string and water multiple pots–bearing in mind that the water source will be depleted more quickly with more ropes and pots.

Don’t skip adding the washer – if the rope doesn’t sink to the bottom of the water reservoir the rope won’t be able to transfer all of the water to your plants.

Conclusion

Automating your container garden irrigation system is one of the best ways to set your garden up for success. Even if you’re not planning on leaving your garden this summer, it’s all too easy to put even the most essential tasks on the back burner. 

Don’t let water stress be the reason that your garden struggles this year. Using any one of these seven passive irrigation systems is a great step toward minimizing your workload and maximizing your summer harvest.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information. 

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, please check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here. Enjoy! 

~Jonathon

About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.

Sarah C.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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